What is Monty Don’s Favourite Book?

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Garden writer and broadcaster Monty Don reveals how learning about falconry as a teenager left him scanning the skies for a sighting of the elusive goshawk …

I first read The Goshawk by TH White when I was 17. It was a life-changing experience. It felt that I had opened a door into a world where everything was both familiar and endlessly fascinating. It was partly the idea of White living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage in the wood, partly the solipsism and isolation, partly deep fascination with the natural world and corresponding alienation and dislocation from the human – and partly the hawk itself, Gos, with his berserk, murderous wildness.

For those who have not read it – and I urge you to do so – White, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage in a wood in Stowe Ridings with his beloved dog Brownie, determines to train a hawk using a 17th-century textbook as a guide. The process was not only archaic but unnecessarily arduous and almost masochistic. This was 1936 (although the book was not published until 1951) and goshawks were to all intents and purposes extinct in Britain (and remained so until the 1980s) so a young bird arrives from Germany, taken from the nest.

Monty Don photographed by Derry Moore

The relationship between the bird and White is sado-masochistic with the bird not only tormenting his body with lack of sleep but ultimately breaking his heart by escaping. It is a strange, unnerving book with only two main characters – a deeply troubled man and the wildest of all animals.

This, of course, was irresistible. From that day on – and I read it in one sitting and then reread it almost constantly for the next ten years – the goshawk was my symbol of true wildness and untamed beauty. I longed to live alone in the woods with my dog and hawk and seriously planned and intended to do that. I also read everything I could lay my hands on to do with falconry, went to every display and was set to do a course and get my own bid when I won a place to Cambridge so felt I could not keep a bird – a falcon rather than the much more tricky goshawk – until I left. With hindsight I could easily have done so – I kept a dog and six hens and the outside loo that doubled as the henhouse could easily have served as a mews. Then I met Sarah and for the first time there was someone that I wanted to be with more than myself and we flew away together.

In the years that followed, although I obsessively scanned every sky for raptors and came to know quite a lot about them, not only did I not own or train a goshawk – I never even saw one. They had become, in my mind, the rarest of all living things that might enter my world – even though I knew I should instantly recognise one.

Then – after over 30 years’ wait – I did.

I was driving my tractor up a steep slope on August Bank Holiday in 2006, cutting the bracken, when a buzzard-sized bird flew across the hillside above me. This bird looked like a sparrow-hawk but was bigger than the biggest female sparrow-hawk could possibly be. In the half a millisecond that my bird-identifying brain took, I realised that it was a goshawk, but – and this really threw me – it had a very pale, almost-white unstreaked chest. All my images of goshawks had the female brown with a distinctly streaked chest and the male grey-blue, with a grey-streaked body. But I could see no streaks. The body and underside of the wings, viewed from my tractor, looked almost white. I have since learned that goshawks vary quite a lot – as indeed do most birds of prey – and that the young tend to be much paler, with the mature plummage only establishing after the first moult. This bird was probably one of that year’s fledglings, fully grown but very immature.

It was probably in my sight for two seconds at most, flying from a group of trees across the slice of hillside to the dingle. I was ecstatic but did not have a phone nor anyone else within half a mile. So wildly excited and triumphant, I carried on cutting the bracken.

Later that afternoon I saw it again from my tractor, the same bird, crossing a field on the same hillside. You wait a lifetime to see a goshawk and then see two – or at least one twice – on the same day.

Since then, goshawks have become frequent – if still heart-stoppingly thrilling – visitors to the skies above this garden and the fields around. I don’t suppose many 21st-century 17-year-olds now read a book about a distinctly troubled and odd man failing to train a goshawk in the 1930s. But I am infinitely grateful that I did, and thanks to it, the goshawk remains for me the measure of all that is truly wild and untamed.

From: My Garden World, Monty Don, published by Two Roads, out now.

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